15,000 years old viruses have been found in prehistoric ice atop the Tibetan plateau, and scientists say global warming is threatening to melt ancient glaciers that could release the unknown pathogens.
Researchers found 33 pathogens frozen inside lumps of ice from an ancient glacier, and 28 of them are never been seen by humans before.
According to experts, global warming could release the viruses into the atmosphere as the glaciers melt in ‘worst-case scenario.’
The increasing temperatures could discharge the 15,000-year-old viruses into a world that has no immunity yet against them. While some are likely harmless, others could be lethal.
Researchers from China and the US drilled down 50 meters into the Tibetan plateau glacier. The 5-year project to investigate pathogens let them ensure they were detecting years-old viruses.
They removed the top layer of the ice and washed it with water and ethanol to make sure it was free from contamination. After that, they tested the procedure on artificial ice cores then applied it to two ice cores.
The researchers then applied microbiology and genetic techniques to record the DNA in the two ice cores.
Co-author Lonnie Thompson said to Vice: “This is an exciting new area of research for us.”
The scientists wrote in their paper published online in bioRxiv: “Glacier ice harbors diverse microbes, yet the associated viruses and their impacts on ice microbiomes have been unexplored.”
Even though they refused to comment on their study, they wrote that there is a great deal of interest in investigating extinct viruses stored in glaciers. But the increasing temperatures could trigger glacial melting and destroy all records of the ancient microbial life stuck within.
“At a minimum, this could lead to the loss of microbial and viral archives that could be diagnostic and informative of past Earth climate regimes; however, in a worst-case scenario, this ice melt could release pathogens into the environment,” they wrote.
Professor Scott Rogers, who wrote a book on the potential of dormant pathogens in glaciers being released, said it could trigger an incurable plague and infect humans without immunity to the virus.
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